The following is an op/ed by Seth Masket (chair of political science at the University of Denver), Robert Duffy (chair of political science at Colorado State University), and David Brown (chair of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder). It appeared on the Denver Post's website and is reposted in its entirety below.
In late March, Congress passed a continuing budget resolution, funding the federal government for another six months. Included in that resolution was an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., prohibiting the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless that research is certified as promoting America's national security or economic interests. Political science, which receives roughly $10 million annually in NSF research support, was the only academic discipline singled out in such a way.
This outcome is, in our opinion, both regrettable and potentially damaging to scientific research and to our nation in general. To be sure, our nation faces a large budget deficit right now, and it is entirely appropriate for our political leaders to root out waste in government spending. This cut in NSF funding, however, does essentially nothing to limit the scope of the federal government or move it toward fiscal solvency. The federal government spent roughly $3.5 trillion last year; NSF's political science program represents little more than a rounding error in a budget that size. It's been proposed that those funds should instead be sent to the National Cancer Institute. This is certainly a noble use of the public's money, but it won't go very far in a world of expensive medical procedures.
But why should the public fund political science research? Quite simply, because political scientists are in the business of examining problems associated with democracy and representation, and investigating solutions for those problems.
Recent NSF grants have funded projects examining how to improve quality and responsiveness among government agencies, what makes it easier or harder for people to run for office, how best to measure party polarization, and voter fraud. The American National Election Study, which has asked some of the same questions of voters since 1952 and given us a clear picture of how voters have changed (and haven't) over time, has been funded by the NSF. This vital survey has been used not just by political scientists, but also by psychologists, economists, historians, political practitioners, and others. Within Colorado, NSF grants have supported research on third party movements, presidential caucus participation, party conventions, and the quality of representation.
Contrary to some claims, NSF grants do not simply line the pockets of political scientists. Typically, much of the funding is spent on hiring and training graduate students and research assistants, providing them with skills and income they need as they begin their academic careers teaching the next generation of students. The universities often get a substantial cut of the funding, as well, allowing them to fund other research and educational commitments and preventing them from raising tuition even higher.
Over the past 20 years, NSF's political science program has brought in roughly $2 million to the University of Denver, the University of Colorado, and Colorado State University. These funds have been vital to several research projects and produced numerous publications. A grant managed at Boulder produced a detailed database of every bill considered by Congress since World War II, giving researchers a powerful tool for understanding the creation of laws. Another grant managed at DU supported more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students as they surveyed delegates and protesters at the national party conventions in 2008. Researchers in Fort Collins managed an NSF grant examining public perceptions of Supreme Court decisions.
Such scholarship is beneficial to the public but probably wouldn't have been conducted without NSF support. Scholars at large research schools like Stanford and Harvard may well be able to find other support for their research; faculty at smaller schools with more modest budgets probably won't. NSF funding often makes the difference between research that happens and research that doesn't.
What's more, NSF has a demonstrated history of being scrupulous, rigorous, and unbiased in its awarding of funds. Without such a funding source, scholars may be able to find some organizations to support their research, but those sources may be motivated by political biases and demand certain types of results from the research.
Our public officials are certainly free to make decisions about the best use of the public's money. But to single out one discipline out of the many that receive federal support seems pernicious, especially when that discipline is focused on such basic questions about the quality of our government and its abilities to improve people's lives. The answers to these questions are neither cheap nor obvious; they require support and expertise to answer.
As Congress considers its next budget resolutions, we strongly encourage its members to support restoring full funding to the NSF political science program. This represents only a very narrow sliver of the federal budget, but it makes an enormous difference to scholars, their students, and, ultimately, anyone who cares about the functioning of their government.